04/30/2012 08:55 am ET Updated Jun 30, 2012

South Africa's Passage Into Adulthood

Last week was South Africa's 18th year birthday. Like a teenager, our social fabric has to deal with wild fluctuations of our hormones. We are cradled by the generosity of the human spirit and shocked at the mindless brutality of violent crime, especially against women and children. Corruption corrodes our national psyche.

Where are those fearless leaders who led our freedom struggle? Why are we so cowed into submitting to this malaise of mediocrity that sweeps our beautiful land?

We were so proud at the birth of our democracy. The world bowed its head in honor as we raised our banner of democratic victory over the evil of apartheid. Our hopes flew high on those winds of change and promise of a better life for all South Africans. We were the poster child of freedom. We stood like a Baobab tree, invincible against the horror of our past.

How proudly we claimed our citizenship and how in the remotest villages of the world, the name of Mandela was whispered in awe. Our victory in South Africa was a triumph of our shared humanity. It was the torch that lit the aspirations of the oppressed, the marginalized, the poor, and socially excluded worldwide.

There are many victories we still need to celebrate. We never thought it was going to be easy to deliver on those hopes we had. South Africa would be a scorched earth of a racial civil war if it was not for extraordinary leaders who navigated a political minefield to deliver us democracy. Our Constitution vowed that will never again submit to the horrors of arbitrary power. Until now!

Our score card shows us to have failed the poor dismally in our country. I was part of the fundamental mistake in 1994 that believed that the State would deliver on all the goals of the reconstruction and development program. Our citizens, the engine of our freedom struggle, became passive bystanders in delivering the better life we promised. Our arrogance grew with time and hierarchical leadership that followed. Soon the hallways of power were inhabited by the 'big leaders' who believed they knew what was best for the country.

A common shared vision that united us against apartheid was shattered. Civil society and social movements were scorned. Our relationships became adversarial. Denial set in with devastating consequences as our HIV/AIDS debacle demonstrated. We became subjects again.
More critically our education system failed to deliver on the hopes of our next generation. Its poor quality condemned our youth to a future with very few skills, no jobs or the likelihood of having the dignity of labour in their lifetimes. Our movement is paralyzed by factional battles. That contestation has all to do with access to state resources and little to do with delivery and implementation. And the rhetoric grows more divisive and toxic. Today, we talk in the corridors about the predatory economic and political elites who are fused at the hip.

A veil of secrecy driven by state securocrats threatens to take us back to the dark days of apartheid when our voices were silenced by fear. We need a new political narrative in our beautiful country. We need a new generation of fearless leaders today who will confront arbitrary power with the truth.

I sat down with young activists from Equal Education in Khayalitsa last year. They were earnest and dedicated volunteers like we were in the 80s and committed to social justice. I was struck by the slogan on their T-shirts: "Each generation has its struggle."

How true that is. I realized that my role was not to lead but to support these youth leaders. Not to lecture but to listen. To give them the aerial cover from arrogant political leaders who regard them as upstarts as those in power once regarded me. After all, it is my generation that has created the nightmare of unmet expectations we face today. The conversation with these activists and others I have had with dedicated youth leaders across the country does not reflect the vulgarity of the youth views we see in our media every day.

Soweto 1976 was our Tahrir Square. It forced us to turn our attention to the painstaking challenge of building organization in our communities, in the factories and mines, in schools, amongst youth, women, and faith based groups. Each person became a leader.

I believe we need to return to those simple ideals. Why do we have excellent run schools in our townships and others that are run by incompetent principals where dreams are destroyed? Why do we allow local councillors to give tenders to their corrupt pals who rob us of our constitutional rights to basic municipal services? Why are some hospitals run excellently and others run down?

Can we have a real debate on performance?

There are many honest civil servants and public representatives. But significantly like the Corruption Watch report Tjo-Tjo on corruption within the Johannesburg Metro police shows there are those who think a state job is a license to extort citizens. Surely, that behavior is inspired by those higher up. How often do the discussions in union halls, in the townships, around our dinner tables reflect this state of the nation? The way in which certain Ministers and high ranking officials live the high life, dine in expensive restaurants on the public purse, drive luxury cars and display the arrogance of the blue light syndrome. Should ethical behavior not start here? Should they not take some lessons in humility and integrity?

The question remains. What is to be done? There is no magic bullet. We have to rebuild accountability from the ground. The present electoral system gives all party bosses power over elected representatives because it is based on a list system. It is rare, as we saw in the recent parliamentary debate on the Secrecy Laws for members of Parliament, to vote with their conscience. How many people within the public or private sector would jeopardize their jobs and incomes because of principle? There are mortgages to pay, children to be educated, food to be bought. As we know from recent whistleblowing experiences, it may even cost you your life.

Let us debate the electoral system which ensures greater accountability to citizens rather than party bosses.

We also need to defend our public institutions. While every country has some degree of political appointments, we do not need party loyalists appointed by some sub-committee. It has undermined public confidence, often resulted in those not with best competencies being appointed. There has to be a greater public scrutiny and transparency in this appointment processes.

But ultimately it is only us, as citizens, who can restore the democratic ideals of accountability. That means we must stop being subjects and become active citizens again. Let us have an honest conversation the racial poverty we still face, the daunting unemployment that offers nothing positive to our next generation, the new apartheid that divides the 'haves' from the 'have nots'. What is our national identity? What are the pressing national debates we should be having?

Democracy thrives when a government fears its citizens, it dies the moment the citizens start to fear their government. We need to stop being afraid of the leaders we elect.